China PR machine overwhelmed by safety crisis

 @ibtimes on September 06 2007 1:01 PM

China has been overwhelmed by the storm of criticism and level of interest in recent product safety problems, but it will be a good learning experience, a public relations executive said on Thursday.

Barely a day goes by without some new scandal over a made-in-China product, be it toys, toothpaste, candies or seafood.

In the latest incident, the world's leading toy maker, Mattel Inc, said it would take back more than 800,000 units of Fisher-Price models and Barbie brand playsets because of impermissible levels of lead.

Senior government officials have on numerous occasions lashed out at the foreign media for overhyping the issue, insisting that the vast majority of Chinese goods are safe and problems are limited to a few errant companies.

But China had not dealt with the crisis well so far, in terms of getting its own message across, although it had been a lot more open than would have been expected a few years ago, said Miles Young, chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Asia Pacific.

As anyone feels in a crisis, they are overwhelmed. They are coping very differently than how they would have coped two or three years ago, he told Reuters in an interview on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in China's Dalian.

It is difficult to get your message across because the noise coming through is so intense, Young said, referring to the intense media interest in the story.

It is the sort of noise that is quite difficult to respond to logically because a lot is illogical and irrational.

In the U.K., there would be a coordinated media response at a cabinet level and that is missing in China, said Young, who is also co-director of the Tsinghua-Ogilvy Programme for Public Branding, a Beijing-based consultancy.

At times, Chinese officials' reaction to the seemingly never ending barrage of stories has bordered on the farcical -- hiding behind burly security guards to dodge reporters and taking days to respond to media questions, or simply ignoring them.

However, the government has been holding more and more news conferences on the subject, and even providing interpretation into English.

In China, the task is hampered further by the six different government agencies which are tasked with ensuring food and product safety.

Getting a unified, compliant, message for a government that is dealing with lots of other issues of growth and development -- (it's) a painful exercise to bring these all together, said Young.

For many government officials this is new and challenging stuff to learn, he added.

It will get better and better every time something like this happens, Young said. I sense there is a growing recognition to get the presentation right.

Join the Discussion